Ivelyse Andino is an Afro-Latina health equity innovator born and raised in The Bronx. She is the CEO & Founder of Radical Health, working at the intersection of community health and technology. Radical Health combines meaningful conversations with AI-enabled tech that helps people understand their health care rights during a visit, build trust, and develop self-advocacy.
Ivelyse works with Radical Health to address the social determinants of health: the environment, structures, and conditions we live in that impact our health outcomes. In partnership with local community-based organizations, they facilitate local Community Needs Assessments and work with the same community to develop leaders and solutions to the top needs.
NEXUS HQ interviewed Ivelyse to learn more about her reasons for founding the company, how COVID-19 is further exacerbating and turning the spotlight on inequality in healthcare in the U.S., and her theory of change for shaking up the industry.
Learn more about Radical Health: https://www.radical-health.com/
Follow Radical Health on Instagram and Twitter @WeAreRadHealth
Tell us about your company. What’s your ‘why’ and how did it come to be?
I was born and raised in the Bronx and I wanted to be a doctor, largely because before I knew what health inequities were, I saw them and I felt them. I saw people that I knew not being well and so I thought, well if I’m a doctor, then I can save people. That was my theory, but I was really young. That path didn’t necessarily work out for me.
But I did still end up being really interested in health and found my way working in healthcare. I worked for pharmaceutical companies. For me, that was mostly just a pathway for stability and security. It allowed me to work with doctors and researchers directly, and as new drugs were released I got to work with the FDA to release them and train other physicians and researchers and clinicians on these drugs.
Then my mom was diagnosed with cancer while I was doing that professionally. It was a really interesting moment where it kind of showed me it didn’t matter how much money I made or how smart I was or who I knew, my mom was still in a Bronx hospital and because she had a previously existing condition, even though she had been working for a health insurance company, she had just switched jobs and she wasn’t eligible to be covered by her own insurance or on Medicaid.
That for me was really hard-hitting, almost a bit of cognitive dissonance, but then I realized oh this is the inequity that I felt, and I was now actually seeing it. It was structural, seeing that where you live really begins to determine your health outcomes. So from there, I left the pharma world.
I had a good friend who was starting a health tech company. They said I should join and that they didn’t have anyone who knew how to work in health but also did tech and could talk to clinicians and physicians, so I jumped in there. It was a really fun moment for me because this was 12 years ago, so health tech has grown incredibly since then, but I was at the forefront at that time.
So while I’m sitting at these meetings at the intersection of health and tech with CEOs of large companies, I was often the only woman in the room, by far and large the only person of color, and almost always the youngest in the room. I found myself kind of not being heard, seen, or listened to on so many levels. Also, the stuff that they were creating wasn’t really created for the communities that I represent or that I am a part of.
So it was in those moments where I was finally like okay, I need to use the access that I’ve been given but also I want to design something that centers around communities.
I started meeting folks in my dining room table and talking with folks who felt they didn’t have the pedigree or the access; but they knew what they needed, wanted to envision, and what they had that they could share.
We started meeting in my living room and talking about the future of health and that’s still what Radical Health does today. We began in 2014 and then formally incorporated in 2015. What we do today is we look at health and health equity through meaningful conversations. We use human-centered design principles to hear from folks around health issues or concerns. We realized that there were certain things that were happening in healthcare that people didn’t really understand or know what was going on. We really believe that it’s about the coming together of people, so we use indigenous circles and healing circles to chat with folks, to share power and access, to hear what people have to say and to build trust and community. Through this process of building trust amongst the community, we begin to completely reimagine a brand new system and what trust looks like between systems. The circles can really be used in any way, we let our community decide what they need and what they want and respond to that.
So the focus was on how to help people have the conversations that they need to have. We asked, how do we help them feel empowered as an end-user? How do we empower individuals to have agency? In the same way that when you go to any other service provider, such as when we’re picking out schools for our kids we know that they will get lunch; when we pick out apartments to live in we know that at a bare minimum they will have running water, lighting and heat. But we don’t have those same kinds of thresholds or standards for our care.
We really wanted to help people ask questions and engage in a meaningful way. So in support of that, we built up this app that uses real people. For us, we don’t really believe that technology alone is ever going to fix anything, so we wanted to combine people plus tech to make a change. We have some AI-based features on the app and then real people who help you know what questions to ask.
What’s the origin story of the Radical Health company name?
I’m largely inspired by the Young Lords and the Black Panthers, I’m a community organizer and activist. So when I was picking out the name, I just wanted folks to know that we’re not doing business as usual. When we think about the definition of radical, one of the definitions is ‘existing inherently in a person or thing’. And so it’s essentially the root of something. As human beings, when it comes to health, what we know to be true is that what we need already exists within us. So Radical Health is about creating and holding that space that lets people tap into that and lean into that.
How would you describe Radical Health to a six-year-old?
Well my son, in his words he says “Mom, you help fix things and make people feel better!” I would describe it as: At Radical Health, we help you think about questions and answers to make your body feel better and to make your community feel better.
Given the current state of affairs, how has Radical Health responded to or been impacted by COVID-19?
It’s interesting because as a company, even though we are a health equity company, we’re a small business, we are tiny compared to all the others in the healthcare industry. Also, our programming is rooted in the community. We do a ton of community events, I think last year we did around 2,200 hours of in-person community workshops. So essentially we had to reimagine all of the different work that we do and still maintain focus on those that are the most impacted, those that are often unseen.
We’re doing online circles now. We had to reimagine our new app. We were actually scheduled to launch our app at SXSW, and that got canceled. So we basically went back to the drawing board and we’ve pushed back the maternal health app and now we’ll launch that in the next 3-6 months. We built out and repurposed the framework that we had to support folks with COVID-19; so knowing what questions to ask, what is Coronavirus, how to navigate what the treatment options are, and to do so in an accessible way.
What’s one thing that is helping you adjust to the new normal? A work from home hack?
What we did as a company was change the structure of our work. So right now, Mondays are off days and everyone’s supposed to do whatever they need to do to take care of themselves. We have no meetings on Mondays. On Fridays, we don’t have any work meetings, aside from a check-in circle; and that is literally just talking about our feelings, we’re using our own circle practice in that as well and we invite in some of our clients and our partners.
We’ve kind of gone down to a three-day workweek. We’ve always had a very flexible work from home policy and a mostly make-your-own schedule. I’m a mom, we have moms on our team, so I just wanted to offer that, the grace and also the ability to reimagine what the future of work can look like. A 40-hour workweek never worked for me anyway and I imagined that most people also felt that way.
I’ve thrown an “out of office” message on, where now I’m just like, look: we’re working, we’re doing the best we can, I’m not going to respond right away, I’m going to do my best to get to you. It sets the tone for me and for my team. I felt much better. I was like why haven’t I don’t this sooner? Also for the folks that I work with too, setting the tone that we’re all in this together and there’s no reason to be extra productive in the middle of a pandemic.
Share a little more about Radical Health’s vision and what you feel is its greatest impact on the world.
There are a few things. We get many stories of how our work has transformed people’s lives. Maybe the impact that I’m the proudest of is that we are currently, and we always have been, challenging the healthcare system. We challenge it in a way that I don’t even know that it knows it’s being challenged. In many ways, we operate like a Trojan horse, in that we’re building momentum and building people power and I think that’s really impactful.
We’ve been able to aid in actually changing things by leveraging our tools, our circles, our experiences. Last year we were working with a high school in the Bronx that had lead in the building. They didn’t have any portable water jugs. The administration basically just said “oh there’s no water in the building” and that was that. We did a workshop there and everyone agreed that they needed water. The students after that organized, petitioned and they were able to get clean water while the lead was being addressed.
We also did workshops this past summer around drug use and overdose and what that meant to the community. Just being able to hold space for people who never had that space to talk openly is super empowering. I’m also proud of the connections that come after we are out of the picture. We’re able to hold space and that’s great, but what’s even more beautiful to see is that there are connections that are built that go far beyond and transcend even the moments that we’re together or on the app.
What are some of Radical Health’s core values?
Definitely vulnerability. We lead with vulnerability and that is our creative strength. I say that meaning that we don’t have all the answers, we don’t know all the things, personally or as a company, but in a world where everyone pretends to be an expert I think that’s what gives us our greatest strength. Because we’re not experts at all. We believe people are the experts of their own lives.
Then I’d say equity. Everything that we do has an equity lens from how we hire, to who we pay, to how we work, to where we work, to what gigs we take, to who our clients are. We just do everything within an equity perspective that is inclusive.
What is the biggest area of support needed for Radical Health?
We are growing, we’re like a “toddler” startup, you know we figured out a really good revenue model, but I’m still learning what it’s like to be a CEO. Our team is learning as we grow. There have been models from other folks who have come before us and done similar work, paving the way for us to get here, but we’re also kind of carving out new paths and ways of being. So as we think about who we are and where we’re going to be, we need folks to be talking about health and health equity. Especially represented in hiring and policy. I think we need folks to come alongside us, whether that’s at Radical Health or also just alongside us as a partner, even at the bigger companies that can stand to leverage us. We’ve done this pretty well already but strong partnership building will remain an area of focus.
What is your favorite NEXUS memory?
I just was introduced this year. So my first real engagement with NEXUS was at the Summit in Washington D.C. But, as you know, I’m now part of this first Accelerator Fellow class. So, it’s been a short time, but I think my favorite memory would be just having lunch at the Summit. It was with a bunch of women. We were sitting around talking about what we see, what we want, and just connecting authentically. It was a natural connection and just a really sweet spot to be able to share so vulnerably with each other and talk about our vision and our respective missions and to be able to do so without any agenda.
Who is your dream connection or person you want to meet? (Professional, personal or both)
This is always hard because I think that often when folks answer this question they think to themselves ‘who can I meet that will accelerate me to the next level!?’. But I think for me, it’s not really a specific person. I want to meet other women of color who are doing incredible things and challenging existing systems.
I mentioned earlier about being the only young Afro-Latina woman in all those rooms. So at this point in time, it’s like how do we build together? Because we’ve all been the only woman in the room. We’ve all been in those moments. So for me, I want to see my peers, because we know the struggle in more ways than one. We’re probably way more powerful together than we are separate. I want to meet folks who want to build, who are currently challenging the way things are, and have no qualms about speaking out about equity and racism and unequal structures and really want to work together to change them.
What celebrity would play you in the biopic of Radical Health?
Yara Shahidi. She’s young, she’s brilliant. She’s totally all about activism and speaks out on important issues. I think she’s also attending Harvard while she’s an actress. I really just admire all of the young actresses that are coming into their own right now and doing so really unapologetically and speaking up and using their platforms for good.
What show are you currently binge-watching when you aren’t busy running Radical Health?
I just finished watching On My Block, also Insecure, and Gentified, which is a new Netflix original. It’s about a Latinx family in LA, and it touches on all of the issues, so gentrification, LGBTQ issues, culture, it’s a really good show. It’s in Spanglish. There’s a lot of stuff in there that speaks to my real life, which is nice to see represented.
Who are three of the most inspirational people in your life?
All of the black, brown and indigenous women that have come before me. Like Wanda Salomon, Melissa Barber, all these women that have down the work. Melissa Barber is a doctor who was trained in Cuba and now runs a medical school there that takes U.S. students and gives them free medical education.
There are a bunch of invisible folks who literally sacrificed their lives in silence to make it possible for me to be who I am and do the work that I’m doing. From the doulas to the birth workers, to all the doctors and researchers that did not have any of the access, support, or representation they needed. I’m always inspired by those who have come before me.
Also Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Lolita Lebrón. Lolita was a Puerto Rican activist who had this fierce spirit and passion for Puerto Rico which is where I’m from. She was willing to sacrifice her life for her country, her island.
I’m inspired by the justice fighters and the community organizers, like Adilka Pimentel. I’ve learned the most from them and they inspire me every day.
The inaugural Impact Accelerator Cohort is in several industries but have you noticed any similarities? Or another fellow you have seem to have synchronicities with?
Even though we all come from different industries and there are some stark differences, the similarities are that we all care deeply about doing good. Felix’s company (ChopValue) probably couldn’t be any more different than mine, I mean, he makes goods out of chopsticks; but in fact, he has probably been the most helpful to me. Because his perspective is so far outside of what we do at Radical Health, including everyone else in the Cohort, that we’re able to see one another in ways that offer so much value.
I’d say that Emily (Seed&Spark) and I have probably the most similarities in terms of our mission, our vision, the people we work with and what we’re building. We both have similar situations and journeys.
The other thing is that because we’re all building something, there’s really great synergy among us and we can be authentic with each other. We all know that the struggle, the journey. We could all be a hot mess at home on any given day and then have to go smile and put on our game face for our teams, and so we all have this mutual understanding of what that means.
When travel resumes post-COVID-19, where are you going on vacation? Or where do you first want to go, even if not vacation?
The first place I’m going is home to like Puerto Rico. I’m going to go to the town where my grandparents are from and just be with my community there. Go enjoy the ocean, be on the beach. Now that we’re all practicing working from anywhere, maybe I will stay there for a little while!
What’s one (or two) books that you found most helpful on your entrepreneurial journey?
Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy. It’s based on Octavia Butler’s stories. It’s actually sort of a guidebook and it has some facilitation tools. She writes about the principles of organizing on the small granular level and building with people. It has some great analogies, it’s a wonderful book.
Then I’ll go with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. She was a black woman who wrote sci-fi, which is really rare. It’s a fiction novel of a post-apocalyptic world that shows what survival and community looks like, it’s kind of scary and dark but also eerily a foretelling of what we see now. Also I would choose Nathalie Molina Niño’s book Leapfrog, it’s so good! It has hacks on how to build a company and tips for being an entrepreneur, broken down into small narratives.
Given what you know now, what would you tell your younger self when you first started this company?
I would tell myself that you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. You’re just going to. You think you’re going to fail, and failing is okay. Overall, just keep going. I have affirmations that I now like to keep on my desk that say things like “I’m not afraid of failure or other people’s opinions.” and they are really so valuable to remind me everyday.